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Rags to riches - for everyone

It’s a perennial question: what to do with your old pants? But one, which as Hilary Garlick – service development officer for Suffolk County Council – says people are a little “squeamish” talking about. There’s a suspicion that items of clothing that people don’t feel comfortable taking to a charity shop or bring bank, end up in landfill. But at the moment it’s all a bit unclear exactly what is going on and what sort of textiles are being binned. It’s a question that WRAP is busily investigating and plans to publish a report on this summer. However, a conservative estimate put out by Marks and Spencer at the launch of its recycled clothing initiative ‘shwopping’ is that one in four items sold in the UK end up in landfill. This equates to around a billion pieces each year or 500,000 tonnes.

In the meantime, Suffolk County Council has done some of its own research into why residents put items of clothing in their household waste bins. It asked residents what they would do with clothing, of varying degrees of quality, they no longer wanted. There emerged a picture that consumers are taking nearly new or slightly worn items to the charity shops followed by less quality items to the bring banks and then worn, poorer quality, items are going into the residual bin. “One common reason for a piece of clothing to go to landfill was that it was dirty or soiled, it was a one-off item, or it was torn or damaged,” says Garlick.

Textiles Recycling Association president Ross Barry agrees with this view. “People think if I give to a charity shop it should be something of the quality that someone in this country would wear,” he says. “But if you look at what is going into the bins it’s not bad, most people’s clothing isn’t really bad or worn because most people don’t do decorating or building work. Most people dispose of their clothing because they don’t like them anymore.”

So there appears to be a gap between perception of what the consumer considers is acceptable for re-use – and therefore what can be taken to a charity shop or put in a bring bank – and what isn’t. And if a consumer doesn’t feel comfortable taking a piece of clothing to a charity shop or bring bank, there are few alternatives to the household bin. The last meaty piece of research done into textile recycling was published by Defra three years ago – Maximising Reuse and Recycling of UK Clothing and Textiles.

It quoted figures saying that between 14% and 22% of MSW comprised of clothing and that this was set to rise “more rapidly” than other materials “albeit from a modest base”. One of its suggestions to achieve a higher reuse/recycling rate was to increase the number of household collection schemes. The report states that the number of these schemes, “has grown, but lags collection of other recyclates substantially”. WRAP reports that just 32% of UK local authorities offered kerbside collection of textiles – and that these services are patchy across the boroughs that do offer it.

Salvation Army national recycling coordinator, Paul Ozanne, argues that an education campaign is needed, backed by the industry and WRAP, along the lines of the ‘Love Food Hate Waste’ initiative. “It’s about making sure that the householder has access to clothing recycling and persuading them there’s value in worn clothing,” says Ozanne “In many ways it’s all relative because you might not be able to afford new clothes in Eastern Europe but you may be able to afford worn clothing.”

Reusing items of clothing before recycling is far preferable and obviously both are superior to landfilling. This is the remit behind the recently launched ‘shwopping’ venture between M&S and Oxfam, whereby shoppers are being asked to bring in an unwanted piece of clothing for every new one they buy. The ‘unwanted’ items will be sold in Oxfam shops and when the venture launched – with actress Joanna Lumley as its ambassador – the clothing and food giant pledged that not a single item would go to landfill and all pieces donated would either be reused or recycled.

Charity shops are struggling to get in enough stock to cope with demand – with the recession fuelling increased interest from bargain hungry consumers. And outside of the UK, there is also strong demand. While ‘shwopping’ will help divert some – perhaps more quality - pieces of clothing, what else can be done? Garlick points out, that charity shops can’t advertise that they can take in clothing that – at least in consumers’ eyes – is viewed as “waste” textiles without a special licence or risk falling foul of waste regulations. Yet charities do pass on clothing, which they can’t sell, to textile merchants for recycling. Perhaps, they are – as is the opinion of the Charity Retail Association’s head of policy and public affairs, Wendy Mitchell – an underused resource in the quest to get clothing out of landfill. Could charity shops, and bring banks, become collection points for a broader range of used clothing?

As the profit to be made from second hand clothes has increased, so has the number of players involved, and the waters have become muddied. What once was a charity domain has now seen more private enterprises and – more recently if mainstream media reports are to be believed - local authorities enter the fray. Yet TRA president Barry adds that his firm LMB has “always dealt with local authorities” and that the trend for councils to take over bring bank sites has been gradually increasing over the past few years. However, what is new is the move by local authorities to club together to achieve economies of scale.

Mitchell, argues that charities don’t have the financial muscle to bid for these huge contracts and that the situation is unfair. “These are all big contracts,” says Mitchell. “And they are weighted always on how much money a local authority can make and charities are not able to compete and neither are small enterprises.” In terms of the waste hierarchy, she argues that charity shops provide a, “more optimal environmental service because they resell, for re-use, whatever they can, before they export or recycle a piece of clothing”.

Mitchell also argues strongly that the social value that charities offer is not being considered. She adds that local communities where charity shops are forced to close, lose out. They lose local paid jobs, volunteering opportunities, and the work the charity would have done had it not lost its funding. Scope, for example, said it could have provided a mentoring service for parents with disabled children for 720 families for the £360k it lost in Bromley, in Kent, due to its shops being forced to close.  There is the added dimension that local authorities can face a local backlash if they decide to withdraw bring bank sites from charities. In the case of Bromley, for example, there is a local boycott of the privately run bring bank sites. Some have also argued that tonnages to non-charity run bring bank sites have been reduced.

Mitchell would like to see councils take into account the community benefits that charities offer. And a little known regulation that came into force in March – the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 – may have a bearing here. It requires that public bodies take social values into account when contracting services. Exactly how much impact this piece of legislation will have remains to be seen.

It also looks probable – as with other recycling streams – that there will be a requirement introduced at some stage for the industry to monitor where UK textiles end up and how they are used. This is another of the recommendations made in the Defra report and is something that the Salvation Army, for example, already does. It says, for example, that it can prove that of its average 3,000 tonne monthly textile collections, it landfills less than two tonnes.

On the other hand it makes sense for local authorities to regulate textile collections and ensure a coherent service for local residents. The Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC) argues that local authorities should be free to provide a tailored service to their locality. Residents are confused by the different options and array of clothing donations bags that come through the door. There are also some complaints that charities don’t always maintain their bins, making them a magnet for flytipping, which is costly for local authorities to clean up.

But is there a beneficial compromise? Mitchell would certainly like to see local authorities working more closely with charities and accepts that the lack of communication goes both ways. Ozanne, meanwhile, points to a tripartite agreement the Salvation Army has with North Norfolk District Council and waste management firm Kier Group. The charity provides branded bags with all three organisations’ names on it – the Salvation Army, Kier, and North Norfolk. These bags are delivered empty and picked up when full, four times a year, by Kier during its usual kerbside collection rounds, which it does on behalf of the local authority. The bags are taken to a central point for collection by the Salvation Army, which pays Kier for this service.

The interesting thing about this agreement is that the Salvation Army report that these kerbside collections have had no negative impact on its bring bank sites – suggesting that more clothing is being collected and diverted from landfill. The charity collects an extra 26 tonnes of textiles a year through this process. North Norfolk benefits by claiming the recycling credits and by possibly reducing its landfill tax costs.

The London Waste and Recycling Board, which is proposing that London councils put together a joint textile collection – which has also attracted huge controversy, unsurprisingly as the capital’s charity bring banks are worth £3.3m – says it is trying to consult with the charities involved. In May LWRB held talks with the CRA (see MRW 25 May) and has said that the majority of charity bring banks will remain in place and that the scheme will actually implement more. This could be great news for landfill diversion. Many of the previous local authority consortia schemes – such as the Hertfordshire Waste Partnership textile consortium – have only aimed to match the tonnages previously collected by the charities they have taken over from, rather than increasing it and widening access to recycling services. There is still a lot of opportunity available, as the TRA’s Barry says, “there’s no need for us to fight about what’s out there if we work together, there is enough material.”

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